The commodification of nature has paved the way for the COVID-19 Pandemic and exacerbated historical racist trends. the presiding capitalist regime treats nature and humans alike as pawns in the game of economic growth.
Our society today is fundamentally built around one thing: money. Moral, social and humanitarian concerns pale in importance when economic gain is a possible outcome. We have somehow found a way to place a monetary value on all living beings on the planet and more worryingly justify the discrepancy in the values we place on the lives of animals, minorities and the white and wealthy. Access to healthcare, education, clean air and other fundamental human rights is only granted depending on how closely you adhere to the image and traditions of the white man. And yet, through this system of nature commodification we have allowed a global pandemic to occur – killing more than 840,000 people – and continued to support historic racist institutions and beliefs which systematically handicap more than half of the global population.
We have somehow found a way to place a monetary value on all living beings on the planet and more worryingly justify the discrepancy in the values we place on the lives of animals, minorities and the white and wealthy.
COVID-19 is the disease originating from the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. It is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, presumably jumping the species barrier from bat to human via a wild intermediate host. Wild animal consumption in China began as part of a subsistence lifestyle, but grew into a commercial trade once large-scale industrial farming companies monopolized the market of poultry and pork. As a result, smaller independent farmers were pushed out of the market both literally – as the large companies took the land – and metaphorically – as they couldn’t compete with the low prices of larger companies –– forcing them further into forested areas with more access to ‘wild’ animals and allowing them to capitalise on a niche market that the larger-scale industrial farms had yet to notice.
However, the wild animal trade is certainly not confined to China. Legal wildlife trade in the EU alone generates €100 billion annually and the global illegal wildlife trade is predicted to generate US$26 billion on top of this but due to the nature of it, the number could be much higher. In fact, between 2014-2018, the USA was by far the biggest importer of live mammals from China, with other wealthier countries such as Japan, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany lagging behind. Unsurprisingly, the conditions which house legal and illegal wildlife in the US and around the world are not largely dissimilar to those of China’s wet markets – in fact, most viruses emerge from domesticated farm animals more than ‘wild’ animals, such as the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic which originated in pigs in Mexico. Furthermore, studies have shown that the majority of cases of avian flu pathogens posing a danger to humans occurs in intensive poultry farms in higher income countries. This demonstrates that the calls to shut down China’s wet markets, under the assumption that this regulation would ‘solve’ COVID-19 and prevent future zoonoses from arising, are misplacing the blame.
the commodification of nature and animals is only possible because the concept of nature is purposefully separated and made inferior to the concept of ourselves.
A more holistic view of the situation reveals the worldwide pursuit of profit under capitalism to be the true problem – the commodification of nature and animals is only possible because the concept of nature is purposefully separated and made inferior to the concept of ourselves, allowing us to see nature as an opportunity to generate profit. If we want to avoid more deadly pandemics arising, we need to upend the forces of capitalism which allow nature to be treated as a commodity.
The commodification of nature has not only enabled the current COVID-19 crisis but has also exacerbated the effects of racist systems put in place to excuse the actions of Western countries and deflect blame and responsibility for social issues – ranging from climate change and poverty to wars and political instability. Perfectly illustrating this is Trump’s insistence that the responsibility for COVID-19 is held entirely by ‘undeveloped’ Chinese eating habits and black-market trading of ‘exotic’ wildlife, instead of the brutal capitalist machine upon which modern society is based, whose wheels turn only with animals and humans alike ground up beneath them.
This is entirely unsurprising as the commodification of nature has always exposed fundamentally racist systems and thought. For example, colonial tradition which capitalised off of cheap ‘expendable’ labour in the colonies created one of the largest industries today – oil palm trees, brought to Indonesia and Malaysia from Central Africa by Belgian colonisers. Today they produce approximately 85% of the world’s supply of palm oil, a vital ingredient in almost 50% of packaged goods bought at supermarkets – from chocolates and peanut butter to shampoo and laundry detergent. And whilst they have created jobs for many in Indonesia and Malaysia, the commodification of oil palms has meant that plantations need to constantly be cleared – most rapidly achieved through large-scale uncontrolled fires – to keep up with the unforgiving capitalist machine. This means that the workers who should benefit from the plantations instead end up targeted by them.
Their life expectancies are reduced to crumbs. Many develop severe respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases and experience premature deaths. Haunting studies have shown that the cognitive, educational and economic attainment of children growing up in the heavily polluted area is significantly decreased. Workers are over-exploited by multinational corporations and treated as expendable without regard for human life. And yet, the outdated racist and colonial separation of “us” and “them” somehow justifies the elevated value we place on palm oil as a commodity, to create our favourite foods and products, compared to the value of the millions of real human lives endangered by its success.
the separation of “us” and “them” somehow justifies the elevated value we place on a commodity, to create our favourite foods and products, compared to the value of real human lives endangered by its success.
Environmental racism exists not just between white Western countries and marginalised BAME countries, but also within each and every individual city housing a mix of black and white communities. Perhaps one of the most recent striking observations of this is in Richmond, Virginia. Historic racist redlining practices – which labelled black neighbourhoods such as Gilpin as ‘riskier investments’ – systematically made it almost impossible for black people living in the redlined neighbourhoods to get mortgages and loans and thus generate wealth. A lack of investment in these neighbourhoods meant that they were essentially left to decay – with pavement and concrete in place of the parks and tree-lined streets found in the white neighbourhoods. The results are temperatures in the summer which soar up to 7º Celsius above those of the neighbouring white district of Westover Hills and a shocking differential in life expectancies between the two – 63 years in Gilpin compared to the 83 in Westover Hills.
Thus, the capitalist tradition of nature commodification has most severely impacted BAME countries and communities throughout the world and in each of our individual cities. The commodification of nature directly gives way to viral diseases which disproportionately affect the people who gain the least through the process of nature commodification. And thus, it begs the question – when does it stop? At what point do we stop being selfish enough to decide that the value of millions of lives outweighs the profit generated from nature commodification?
Art by Darcey Joyce